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A leadership menagerie of metaphorical scapegoats

It occurred to me that leaders in Congress and the executive branch have invented a convenient lexicon of metaphorical scapegoats to explain their inability to command party unity on their legislative priorities. More specifically, there is a tendency to vicariously blame their failings on other species of the animal kingdom.

When President Bill Clinton ran into trouble assembling even a majority of his own party in Congress to support his policy proposals, he complained that it was like “herding cats.” Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) picked-up on that metaphor in his post-service memoir titled, “Herding Cats: A Political Life.”

In the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), on his way out the door in 2015, said that holding his ranks together had been like “keeping frogs in a wheelbarrow.”

Not surprisingly, leaders avoid dragging their party mascots into this blame game. The Republicans’ elephant is best known for its strength, plodding persistence, and never forgetting (though it’s not clear today how much it really wants to remember).

The Democrats’ donkey is best known for being a reliable pack animal (read: promise bearer), and a calming influence among an otherwise skittish corral of horses. No references are made by the parties about a stampede of wild-eyed pachyderms or a corral-crashing pack of runaway jackasses.

The point behind this metaphorical review of four-legged scapegoats is not to raise money for the SPCA. As we enter this post-Covid and post-Jan. 6-insurrection era, both parties recognize the need for the Congress and country to regroup for the critical 2022 mid-term and 2024 presidential elections. It may still be required of the leaders to corral cats and frogs, but beyond that it is time to reflect on what the two parties stand for in this third decade of the new millennium and where they want to go beyond just chalking-up ballot box victories.

One gets the impression that neither party wants to be accused of excessive navel-gazing about re-defining core principles and fundamental aspirations coming out of the traumas of the past year. Still, the American people have to be confused and worried about the future of our political system. After all we’ve been through it will take more than just a re-packaging old, partisan bromides and designing flashy new bumper stickers.

I have been grappling with this question in preparing for two programs in which a central question is how to reform Congress in the wake of what is perceived as a systemic breakdown of governance and total dysfunction.

While neither process nor structural changes can, on their own, bring about a cultural transformation of government, they can at least be the foundation for a step-by-step rebuilding of national trust, confidence and comity in our ruling institutions.

Yes, it’s a gauzy outline of what needs to be done. How do you get from point A to point Z? But Congress has undergone greater challenges in the past surrounding such national disruptions as the Civil War and Great Depression. In all instances of such debilitating trauma a combination of new thinking, resources and willpower have come to the fore to resolve the crises.

Central to such changes has always been the spirit and will of the American people. Falling back for solutions on the predominant thinking species of primates, humankind, one has no need to rely on animal metaphors for scapegoating.

Time after time this country has demonstrated its resilience in the face of adversity by putting the people’s will-power and pragmatic problem-solving to the test. As President Abraham Lincoln aptly put it, “With public sentiment, anything is possible.”

Don Wolfensberger is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Bipartisan Policy Center, former staff director of the House Rules Committee, and author of “Changing Cultures in Congress: From Fair Play to Power Plays.” The views expressed are solely his own.

Tags Bill Clinton Boehner congressional leadership John Boehner

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